What you call “Cornocupian” is actually the right mind-set. Optimism and positive thinking are powerful factors. We may have already sown a fatal amount of doom and gloom into young minds. We will never know how much advancement we have foregone because bright young minds have been redirected from childhood into careers based on pessimism and negativity.

Even the reality is portrayed far too negatively; the monotonously regular doom-laden prognostications have been shown to be premature again and again. What is happening, is not understood by the Malthusian mindset. It is “the power of capital”.

Capital in the economic sense is not “money” — it is the “things” themselves that enable production. The power of “capital” has continuously increased because in aggregate it includes ever-more efficiency for its given opportunity cost (eg in foregone consumption). The fracking revolution is just an example. This is actually the big trend. Occasionally there is a quantum leap as well, and these come completely out of the blue. We shouldn’t bank on them, but neither should we pursue “self fulfilling prophecy” political action that foegoes them forever. Slaughtering the “capital increase” golden goose would be a colossal mistake, and probably an unwitting one because this phenomenon (which really drives all progress) is so little understood.

Fossil fuel reserves have been described as a “pyramid”; the greater the cost of extraction, the more there is of it. The Saudis don’t have “the most” oil; they have the cheapest oil to extract. There is a big difference. The “pyramid” is the reason that a spike in the price of oil is never sustained, but falls back down again to a predictable “mean”. The cheerleaders of doom and gloom can’t help but rejoice that their moment as prophets has come at last, each time there is a spike; they will inevitably be disappointed. There is many times as much oil to be had at $80 per barrel as there is at $40 per barrel. The price is not going to rise to a trend around a mean “twice as high as last year” or even $20 higher.

The idea that all deposits are known is laughable. This misapprehension is based on a gross underestimation of the size of the planet. Most of it by far has not been prospected yet because it has not been necessary to. Geologists understand where it is most likely to find easy-to-extract oil and yes, we have probably checked all those locations.

Then there is the reality that the crude barrel price is a relatively minor input into “energy cost impacts”. There is the costs of refining and transport; there are high taxes in most of the world; and there is also considerable scope for people to adopt more efficient means of use rather than change their behavior (eg get a smaller car). Technology and efficiency has continually out-stripped the contraints of crude oil price increases and can easily continue to do so as the fossil fuel “pyramid” effect keeps the price increases slow.

The fact that the battle for the planet has moved on to “emissions” is really because realist environmentalists have got it that “oil running out” is not a plausible argument to “stop using oil”. The result is that “capitalism” in the positive sense, is pursuing the holy grail of CO2 reduction as well as “alternative energy”. It is bad faith if activists and politicians desperately don’t want human ingenuity to succeed yet again (some activists and politicians are quite open about their beliefs in this regard; see the “idiot child with a machine gun” meme).

We are partly doing the right thing by using “pricing” and targeted taxes to turbocharge capitalism’s enthusiasm for coming up with solutions. I said we shouldn’t bank on quantum leaps but our whole mind-set should be to nurture future Faradays and Edisons and Rutherfords. Creating whole new generations of Paul Ehrlich’s and Lester Browns and Petra Kellys is just pathetic, and a sign of a civilization hitting its neurasthenic stage. Matt Ridley in “The Rational Optimist” says the only reason to not be optimistic, is the rise of the politics of backward thinking.

Every quantum leap in the history of energy might have been foregone had the preceding status quo suddenly been deemed to be “unsustainable”, leading to rationing, leading in turn to the depletion of capital rather than its strengthening. It took a lot of capital to go from “wood and coal” to a fossil fuel economy. Imagine if “peak wood and coal” alarmism had led revolutionary politicians to halt our economies and society at mid-19th century conditions. If at any time something like this happens, we will never know what the potential next advance might have been.

The mobs now taking the law into their own hands and trying to shut down city streets, are a disturbing phenomenon that has been created by too much certainty on the side of doom and gloom already. I fear that politicians now lack the spine and the nous to deal with it as it should be.

By the way, why do some writers on Medium use the tags, Politics, Life, Leadership, News and Culture no matter what they are writing about? It may lead to suspicions of intellectual laziness.

Researcher and writer on urban economic and planning issues

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